GE Aviation makes LEAPs and bounds

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GE Aviation makes LEAPs and bounds

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When GE Aviation opens its latest assembly plant in Lafayette, Ind., it will build the world’s first passenger jet engine with fuel nozzles created by a 3D printer. It will also have parts made from next generation materials, such as heat-resistant ceramic matrix composites (CMCs) and breakthrough carbon-fiber fan blades woven in all three dimensions at once.

Though the Leading Edge Aviation Propulsion (LEAP) engine will not enter service until 2016 on the Airbus A320neo, it has already become GE Aviation’s bestselling engine with more than 6,000 confirmed orders from 20 countries, valued at more than $78 billion.

The new technologies will allow the design team to cut the engine’s weight by hundreds of pounds compared to the same size engine built with metal parts, making it significantly more efficient. The 3D-printed nozzles are also five times more durable than the previous model, allowing engineers to use a simpler design.

“We are pushing ahead in materials technology, which gives us the ability to make jet engines lighter, run them hotter, and cool them less,” said Michael Kauffman, a GE Aviation manufacturing executive. “As a result, we can make the engines, and the planes they’ll power, more efficient and cheaper to operate.”

The LEAP engine is being developed by CFM International, a joint venture between GE and France’s Snecma (a subsidiary of the Safran group). The partners have designed three versions of the engine for three next generation single-aisle passenger planes: the A320neo, Boeing 737 MAX, and COMAC C919. Boeing estimates that the single-aisle market will represent 70 percent of all commercial airplane deliveries and 47 percent of total delivery value over the next two decades.

The Lafayette plant will be the seventh new GE Aviation factory to have opened in seven years. Combined, the factories support more than 2,500 jobs.

GE and its partners have about 34,000 commercial jet engines in service. That number is expected to grow by 20 percent to 41,000 over the next six years. GE Aviation’s multi-year backlog for equipment and services reached $125 billion at the end of 2013, a 20-percent jump in just one year.

To meet that demand, GE Aviation plans to invest more than $3.5 billion in plant and equipment spending between now and 2017. Most of the money will be spent in the U.S.

The LEAP engine has benefited from GE’s $1 billion annual investment in jet propulsion R&D. Scientists at GE Global Research have spent the last two decades developing some of the engine’s most advanced parts.

“When you start thinking about design, the weight savings multiplier effect is much more than three to one,” says Kauffman. “Your nickel alloy turbine disc does not have to be so beefy to carry all those light blades, and you can slim down the bearings and other parts too because of a smaller centrifugal force. It’s just basic physics.”

The first LEAP engine is already going through an exhaustive development and certification program, powering through various operability tests at GE and Snecma facilities in the U.S. (Ohio), France, and most recently, Canada.

“We get to put the engine through its paces in the most comprehensive test program we have ever undertaken, said Chaker Chahrour, executive vice president at CFM.

Altogether, the engine will be taken apart and reassembled about 60 times during the testing process, which will put it through the equivalent of 15 years of airline service by 2016.